In a creative life of almost half a century, Hans Abrahamsen has more than once had the courage to stop, and the equal courage to start again – freshly, out of a clear reconsideration of where he was before. His allegiances are shown by the roll of composers whose works he has, as a master orchestrator, reconceived: Bach and Ligeti, Nielsen and Schumann, Schoenberg and Debussy. But he has long discovered his own terrain – quite often a snowscape, as in his early masterpiece Winternacht or the work in which he found his fully mature style, Schnee (2006-8), generally acknowledged one of the rare classics of the twenty-first century.
Besides these two pieces for instrumental ensemble, his output includes four string quartets, a collection of ten piano studies (some of which he has recomposed in other forms), concertos for piano, for piano and violin, and for piano left hand, and a monodrama for soprano and orchestra, let me tell you. He is currently at work on his first opera, after Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.
Today I am listening to an earlier work, Walden for wind quintet (1978). Here is how Abrahamsen describes the work in his program note:
Walden for wind quintet was written in 1978 and commissioned by the Funen Wind Quintet. The title is taken from the American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau’s novel from 1854 about living in the woods, which Thoreau did for two years.
His stay there was an experiment, an attempt to strip away all the artificial needs imposed by society and rediscover man’s lost unity with nature. In that particular sense his novel is a documentation of social inadequacy and a work of poetry (Utopia) as well.
All thought Thoreau himself never completed any actual social analysis he was way ahead of his own time in his perception of the economy and cyclic character of Nature, today known as ecology. His ideas are particularly relevant now that pollution caused by society has reached alarming proportions.
Walden was written in a style of re-cycling and “new simplicity”. A lot of superfluous material has been peeled away in order to give space to different qualities such as identity and clarity. Various layers are encountered in the quintet such as the organic (growth, flowering, Decay), concretism (mechanical patterns) and finally the descriptive (distant horn calls and other ghost-like music of the past enter our consciousness like a dream). Walden consist of four movements.
The other related recent work on this excellent Winter & Winter recording is Wald.
Composed in 2009, Wald (German for ‘wood’ or ‘forest’) is conceived as variations on the opening of Walden for 15-piece ensemble, featuring ‘alternative’ timbres such as bass flute, cor anglais and bass trumpet. Here, despite clear traces of the new simplicity aesthetic, there is more sense of mystery, in places even of threat, and the whole experience is more emotionally and evocatively engaging. Anyone who knows Abrahamsen’s Schnee from his previous Winter & Winter disc will realise that his music makes few concessions to euphony, but also that it has tremendous strength in reserve and repays efforts to probe beneath its surface. (David Fanning, Gramophone, 11/2013)